❝Sooner or later, you have to give up hope for a better past.❞ -Irvin Yalom
I'm sitting on the couch watching a movie with my wife. We're enjoying some red wine and relaxing after a tiring day of hiking with our dog, Bingo. The wine is good, and I think it would pair well with dark chocolate. I walk to the kitchen and get some from our drawer, and I divvy it up back at the couch. Excited to sink my teeth into this chocolate, I don't pay attention as I cross my leg. My foot knocks over my glass of wine onto the floor. I can't believe it; I just spilled my red wine onto our light-colored carpet.
There were times in my life where this would have caused me to go crazy. I would have been angry at myself. I would have told myself stories about how life would be better if I didn't get up to get that chocolate. I would have felt sad because this carpet is less than 2 years old and expensive.
Instead, I realize that getting angry, upset, sad, or filling myself with regret won't help me. Right now, I'm in the middle of a situation that needs my attention. Right now is not the time to dwell on what-ifs. Right now, I have red wine soaking into my carpet.
I rush to the kitchen to grab a handful of paper towels to soak up what wine hasn't been absorbed into the carpet yet. My wife runs to the cleaning closet to grab carpet cleaner and some towels. This situation that needs our attention gets our attention.
After spending some time cleaning up my mess, we are finally in a position to be able to talk about my role in what happened. We are able to talk about whether or not we should get a more powerful carpet cleaner for this kind of accident. We talk about being more intentional with our wine glass placement when we get up.
We weren't happy that I spilled wine on the carpet and cut our movie short, but we didn't let negative emotions overcome us either. We dealt with the problem that was presented to us and made changes to our behavior that would make this less likely to happen again in the future.
And we saved our carpet in the process (but, sadly, the wine could not be saved).
CHANGING YOUR EXPECTATIONS
Many of us have unrealistic expectations about how our days will progress. We wake up expecting there to be no troubles or stress. In fact, we might even think that we want a life completely free from struggle.
It doesn't take much thought to realize that a life free from any challenges or problems would be downright boring. You wouldn't watch a movie or read a book about people who are happy all the time and didn't have anything go wrong.
You probably intuitively already know that you can find satisfaction in struggle and challenge. Think about the proudest story that you can think of. It's likely about some kind of challenge or hurdle that you overcame. It was the overcoming of the challenge that made it so gratifying in the end.
After you've thought about your proudest story and made the connection between challenge and satisfaction, now you can ask yourself what you're willing to put up with going forward. You can change your expectation. You know there will be challenges, so what are you ready to put up with?
THERE ARE NO LOSSES - JUST WINS AND LESSONS
Nelson Mandela once said that he never loses; he either wins or learns. This simple reframe can be quite profound. It takes practice and a mindset switch, of course, but it is well worth it. Think about the most successful people you know. Is it more likely that they became successful quickly or, is it more likely that they failed along the way and learned what didn't work? I would wager they failed their way to success.
There are learning opportunities in every failure. In fact, over time, you'll even stop referring to your failures as failures. You might even keep a journal with all of your "failures" so that you can look back over time to see that it wasn't actually as bad as you thought at the time.
SOLVING PROBLEMS RIGHT NOW
When something pops up that needs your attention, quite simply, you need to give it your attention. This could be an unexpected expense. It could be a fire to put out at work. Or perhaps it's a spilled glass of wine lying on your carpet. Your job at that moment is to solve that problem. Being really angry, sad, ashamed, guilty, or any other negative emotion isn't going to help you solve this problem.
You might be thinking that this sounds like I'm suggesting you push feelings away. That is not the case. This does not mean that you have to squash your anger, for example. It means that with practice, you won't even feel anger because your attention, mindset, and focus have changed. This also is not to suggest that you just let problems happen to you. You can, and should, work and plan for things to work out. It doesn't mean you have to be happy about having bad things happen to you. It doesn't mean that you're not going to do anything about this going forward. It simply means that you don't have to suffer while you solve your problem.
WISHING FOR A BETTER PAST
Sometimes our problems have less to do with something that's sprung upon us and more to do with something from our distant past. We might feel remorse for something that we did that we wish we hadn't. We might regret not taking advantage of some opportunity that found its way to us. Perhaps we feel guilt because we did something we knew was wrong or shame because we acted in a way that we perceive made us look bad.
This can be quite uncomfortable for us because we then dwell on what could have been or never will be. No matter how hard we wish for it, we can never get a better past. We can't change it. That part of our life is what economists call a sunk cost.
These kinds of emotions serve a purpose. They have something important to tell us, so it's important not to ignore or push away these emotions. But the flip side is also true. We ought to let go of these emotions when they are no longer useful. We need not dwell on them.
It pays to understand how our pasts shape us. We can learn to tie our experiences to our current behaviors and make sense of them. Making sense of our past and how it shaped our present to live a better future makes a lot of sense. Hoping and wishing for a better past is impossible.
RIGHT NOW, THIS IS HOW IT IS
Learn to accept your situation as it is. Admittedly, this is not as easy as it may sound, but it is worth it. Ask yourself how much control you had over what happened to you. Are you able to let go of things that were outside of your control? Are you able to forgive yourself and learn the lessons from things that were in your control? Can you recognize that what has happened in the past is now outside your control?
Ask yourself if this troubling thing actually matters in the grand scheme of things. Does red wine on a carpet really matter? If not, can you let it go? If so, what can you do about it?
Just because this sounds simple doesn't mean it's easy. Mindfulness meditation will help you slow down and become aware of these feelings and emotions as they arise without judging them or judging yourself. It allows you to respond rather than react.
It can be tempting to give in to our default reaction. It feels like it will be productive to get angry and punch a wall. It feels like we should yell at our partner or our kids. It feels like we ought to run off to a room to start crying.
But with practice, we begin to realize that punching walls, yelling at our kids, and crying in our room won't clean up the wine on the carpet.
You only have one life. Live intentionally.
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References and Influences
Adams, Scott: How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big
Dalai Lama & Howard Cutler: The Art of Happiness
Haidt, Jonathan: The Happiness Hypothesis
Hanh, Thich Nhat: You Are Here
Hanson, Rick & Richard Mendius: Buddha’s Brain
Hanson, Rick: Hardwiring Happiness
Harris, Dan: 10% Happier
Harris, Sam: Waking Up
Irvine, William: A Slap in the Face
Irvine, William: The Stoic Challenge
Kabat-Zinn, Jon: Wherever You Go, There You Are
Klontz, Brad, and Ted Klontz: Mind Over Money
Lindsay, James: Life in Light of Death
Manson, Mark: Everything is Fucked
Manson, Mark: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck
Scott, S.J., and Barrie Davenport: 10-Minute Mindfulness
Scott, S.J., and Barrie Davenport: Declutter Your Mind
Yalom, Irvin: Staring at the Sun
Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.